Michigan traditionally has had a reputation as a "good government" state, meaning that excessive secrecy and open abuse of the public trust are not tolerated. Consequently, Michigan citizens enjoy a transparency and accountability in their state's legislative process that can only be the envy of citizens in other states.
Much of this accountability is due to the Michigan Constitution of 1963. For example, Article 4, Section 25, states, "No law shall be amended by reference. The sections altered shall be re-enacted and published at length." This provision sounds obscure, but it has important consequences. Without this constitutional requirement, for example, a bill might read, "Delete `2%' from line 3 of MCL 205.54(n) and insert `1%.'" Instead it must read, "The sale for residential use of electricity, natural or artificial gas, or home heating fuels is exempt from the sales tax at the additional rate of
2% 1% approved by the electors on March 15, 1994." The response of most citizens to the first bill would be, "Huh?" The likely response to the second is, "Hey, they want to make me pay more tax to heat my home!"
Another constitutional provision, Article 4, Section 24, states, "No law shall embrace more than one object. No bill shall be amended . . . so as to change its original purpose." The frequent antics of Congress, especially the U.S. Senate, which has no "germaneness" (relevance) rule, highlight the advantage of this provision. To make up an example, it would not be unusual if an important new federal auto regulation were attached to a farm bill.
Two more constitutional provisions ensure legislative accountability. Article 4, Section 17 requires that, "On all bills in each committee, names and votes of members shall be recorded [and] available for public inspection." Section 26 applies this to the whole legislative body: "On the final passage of bills, the votes and names of the members voting thereon shall be entered in the journal." The latter provision does not apply to amendments—they can be sneaked through on a voice vote only—but they must at least be germane.
The Legislature also has done an outstanding job of opening itself up to the Internet. Michiganlegislature.org posts online the text and status of bills, legislative analyses and journals, and more. The executive branch also is exemplary: Its www.michigan.gov site was rated in the top 10 by the national Center for Digital Government.
The response of many Michigan citizens to the above might be, "What's the big deal?" Transparency and accountability are taken for granted—but they shouldn't be. Look at Texas, for example. While it has similar constitutional germaneness and amending-by-reference provisions, one critical piece is missing: There is no requirement for mandatory record roll call votes on final passage of bills. Article 3, Section 12 of the Texas Constitution requires a roll call "at the desire of any three members present." But the legislative "culture" in Austin decrees that this is simply not done, with certain rare exceptions. In this way, many unpopular bills become law with no accountability. Citizens must take the word of their legislator on how he or she voted—and politicians are known to be less than truthful at times.
Though government accountability in Michigan compares favorably with other states, there is still room for improvement. The Open Meetings Act (OMA) requires advance notice and open hearings, but much legislative business is yet done unofficially behind closed doors. Legislative party caucuses are not subject to OMA. To a certain extent this is inevitable: You can't prohibit legislators from talking to each other.
Also, with thousands of complex bills and amendments introduced each year, getting a true picture of a legislator's overall voting record is a challenge. That's why a new nonprofit web site, www.michiganvotes.org, posts objective, concise, plain-English descriptions of every bill, amendment, and vote—easily available to any Michiganian with a computer and Internet access.
Still, at the end of the day, legislators must cast a record roll call vote on every bill. As they do, they may be inclined to whisper a revised version of an old prayer, "Make my votes today be tender and sweet, for tomorrow they'll be published in the journal."
(Lansing veteran Jack McHugh is a legislative analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)